Curious Journey: Timothy O’Grady on his book of interviews with Irish War of Independence veterans

First published in 1982 and now reissued, his and Kenneth Griffith’s book was born out of censorship

Curious Journey is a history of the Easter Rising, Tan and Civil War period told by IRA and Cumann na mBán veterans. It was first published 40 years ago and was written during the hunger strikes. Another edition came out in 1998, coinciding with the Good Friday Agreement. A new edition by Greenisland Press appears at a time when demographic and political changes have made the reunification of the island more plausible than at any time since the Border was drawn.

When the book first appeared, not only republicans but also those with a similar view of Irish history and similar aspirations about the future were subject to censorship, both by diktat and by gentleman’s agreement. Particular vigilance was exercised over broadcast media. Republicans were banned from the airwaves in the South and had to be lip-synced by actors in Britain. Great efforts were made in the media to launder the image of the British presence in Ireland; they were not to be seen as imperialists, but rather as peacemakers.

The book itself was born out of censorship. My co-author, the late Kenneth Griffith, a Welsh actor and documentary maker of unusual intensity and imagination, had made a film about Michael Collins called Hang Out Your Brightest Colours. Its suppression was of the unofficial type, the television company for whom it was made declining to offer it to the broadcasting authorities for transmission. As he was fond of a fight over principle, he sued the company, made an anticensorship film called The Public’s Right to Know and signed a contract to write a biography about Collins.

I met him around this time. We were from different continents and were separated in age by 30 years, but were connected through senses of both injustice and fascination over what was happening in the North of Ireland. He asked me if I’d go to Dublin and Cork with him to help research his book about Collins. No pay, but all expenses paid. We’d interview veterans who’d known and worked with Collins. The subjects, by then senior citizens, were so compelling that he decided to make a film about them instead of writing the book. He thought they could best convey what he wanted to say about his own country’s malign presence in Ireland. Who could deny, let alone censor, such gentle, dignified and articulate men and women? But they too were banned, by the same method as the Collins film.


So we made the book.

The seven men and two women in it came from all four provinces of Ireland and all strata of society – farmers, teachers, railway workers, clerks, landed gentry. They left quotidian life and rose up. David Neligan travelled from west Limerick to Dublin in order that he might move through the ranks of the Dublin police all the way to the British secret service so that he could pass on all that he saw there to Michael Collins. Tom Barry was demobbed from the British army in Wales, went home to Cork and became the IRA’s most formidable guerrilla leader in the field. Brighid Lyons Thornton, a medical student, couldn’t be kept in Longford once the Rising was called. Captured and held in Kilmainham Jail, she heard the volleys as the leaders were shot in the prison yard day after day. She joined Cumann na mBán. Joseph Sweeny left Donegal to attend Pearse’s school and helped carry James Connolly out of the burning GPO. He went on to lead the IRA’s campaign in his native county.

Martin Walton, later the proprietor of the famous Walton’s Musical Galleries, recounted his killing of a man during an arms raid. His whole being travelled back nearly 60 years to the room where it happened, his eyes full of horror, his hand held out before him as if holding the gun

They slept in sheds, got little or no pay, faced jail, gunfire or the gallows. Sean Kavanagh and John L O’Sullivan were badly beaten in custody. What was perhaps heaviest of all the things they faced was having to kill, something often overlooked when the brave deeds of soldiers are enumerated. They were among the more justice-minded and sensitive of their generation. To kill another was to transgress the final taboo. The killings displaced them and haunted their later decades. I saw it when Martin Walton, later the proprietor of the famous Walton’s Musical Galleries, recounted his killing of a man during an arms raid. His whole being travelled back nearly 60 years to the room where it happened, his eyes full of horror, his hand held out before him as if holding the gun, his body quaking as if he were having a seizure as he remembered pulling the trigger.

It was said at the time that they did all these things because they were part of a German plot. Then it was a Bolshevik plot. They were called thugs, psychopaths, gangsters. Later analysts said it all derived from a distorted relationship with their fathers or mothers, or that they were in the grip of a psychosexual ailment. I met them. They were eminently sane, eminently decent. They did it because British imperialism was enforced by violence and they wanted it to depart from their island. They thought theirs would be the generation to make this happen.

It didn’t work out that way. The high euphoria of a revolution nearly won collapsed into the nihilism of the Civil War. The country was partitioned, the Northern state was born out of anti-Catholic pogroms and the threats of a sectarian police force and the South, struggling to hang on to a fragile independence, exchanged revolutionary zeal for a quiet parochialism. Civil War antagonisms determined political and personal lives. Máire Comerford, republican activist, was blacklisted and passed her young adulthood on a tiny poultry farm on a Wexford hilltop. Sean Harling, trying to support his family while not compromising his principles, twisted and turned through exile, poverty and double- and perhaps even triple-agenthood until finally he was parked behind a desk in the Civil Service.

They all lived long enough to see conflict come again to their country in the early 1970s, but not so long as to see the peace. The images that came down to them had an eerie and disturbing familiarity – decimated buildings, hideous deaths, hunger strikes, assassination squads, torture and a whole generation of participants on all sides haunted like theirs by a close and regular proximity to death. It would have been hard, at that late stage of their lives, to see how it could ever end. But end it of course did and the way was cleared for a new chapter.

Oral history is sometimes professionally disparaged. Memory is said to be flawed, or accounts tainted by agendas. That can be so. But so are the police reports, newspaper accounts and cabinet minutes that conventional historians often rely on. And historians, as Nicholas Mansergh, himself an historian, said, “are apt to reduce to terms of cause and consequence matters about which contemporaries felt in terms of challenging, uplifting, desolating or terrifying personal experience”. The nine veterans in Curious Journey saw it and lived it. They made history. When they speak about it they offer it less as an assemblage and more as experience unfiltered, with its desolating and uplifting aspects. They were astute, humble and long-memoried. It was a profound and memorable experience to sit with them, and listen to them. Here are a few of the things they said.

BRIGHID LYONS THORNTON: They were a lovely, happy people, young and old .. We were all geared up and training and preparing for a rebellion. I didn’t know what a rebellion would mean, but it would mean a change. After that we might have our freedom and the world would be a different place. We went out on Sundays on picnics up the mountains and met some of the boys who would be camped there and they’d give us tea in their little tents. There was great joy and unity and fraternity and happiness among everybody. Everything revolved around training, organising, preparing. They bought their own uniforms, they bought their own guns, they bought their own equip­ment, as many of them as could afford it, and they paid their fees to their various companies. There was rivalry between the companies, as was healthy and good of course. There was nothing mercenary about it. There was nothing vicious or there was nothing personal in it beyond their love of getting their own country into their own hands.

JOSEPH SWEENEY: We filed out on to Moore Street and were lined up into fours and were marched up O’Connell Street and formed into two lines on each side of the street. We marched up to the front and left all our arms and ammunition and then went back to our original places. Officers with notebooks then came along and took down our names. A funny incident happened there. One of the officers just looked at one of our fellows and without asking him any­thing wrote down his name and then walked on. After he had gone a certain distance, somebody asked this fellow, ‘Does that officer know you?’ ‘That’s my brother,’ he said.

When that formality was over we were marched into a little patch of green in front of the Rotunda Hospital, an oval patch, and we were made to lie down there. Anybody who put his foot out of line got a whack of a rifle butt. We were kept there all night and a British officer amused himself by taking out some of the leaders. He took out poor old Tom Clarke and, with the nurses looking out of the windows of the hospital, he stripped him to the buff and made all sorts of disparaging remarks about him. ‘This old bastard has been at it before. He has a shop across the street there. He’s an old Fenian,’ and so on, and he took several others out too. That officer’s name was Lee Wilson, and I remem­ber a few years later I happened to be in the bar of the Wicklow Hotel and Mick Collins in his usual way stomped in and said to me, ‘We got the bugger, Joe.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Do you remember that first night outside the Rotunda? Lee Wilson?’ ‘I do remem­ber,’ I said, ‘I’ll never forget it.’ ‘Well we got him today in Gorey.’

TOM BARRY: The big difference in circumstances between our­selves and the British was that we were fighting for our freedom. Irish people who had been sent to the front in the British army had been told they were fighting for freedom too, but they weren’t. They were fighting a war of bloody economic survival – Germans, French, British and Americans, the whole lot of them were just looking for expansion. But in 1918 the Irish people had voted their own government into existence, and it was up to us in the IRA to protect it and prevent its destruction.

And I would like to make one thing very clear before I go on with this. I am not one to believe that war is a glorious thing. I think it is bestial, and the first World War taught me that. There’s nothing romantic about war. The only war that I can justify to myself is a war of liberation. People get the idea that chaps who are at war actually like it. But they don’t. They’re the very people that don’t like it because they know the bestialities of it and they know the hardships and they know the suffering, not alone of the soldiers but of their kith and kin. It often struck my mind when we killed Britishers that there were women and children maybe left without a husband, without a father. I want to make that very, very clear.

Every man that was allowed on to the column had to be selected, and you had a good calibre there, a fine lot of good, decent Irishmen. They were volunteers in the best sense of the word – small farmers’ sons, shopkeepers’ sons, who would have been happy in their jobs if it hadn’t been for these British terrorists. There were a lot of brave men among them. I would say at least nine out of ten of them were prepared to give their lives, even though they might have felt it would end like all our struggles, in disaster. But they were going to make the British pay once it started. And I’m glad to say that with these men we never had a defeat in the field the many times that we met the British, and I never had the slightest bit of trouble with one of them. They’re all dead now nearly, but they were all men that you could be proud of.

Curious Journey can be ordered from all bookshops. For more information, email Timothy O’Grady’s new novel Monaghan can be pre-ordered at